The thermometer may still say summer, but for many areas of the country, it's time for our kids to strap on the new backpacks, lace up the new sneakers, and head back to the classroom. (And for the rest of the U.S., that first day isn't all that far away.) But once we take the obligatory photos to post on all our social media feeds, double-check that we didn't forget the lunch boxes, and wave a nervous good-bye at the door, we moms often wonder what really happens on the first day of school.
Even if you've been through the drill once or twice (or three or four times), the return to school is still a little nerve-wracking every time for both parents and children, as they wonder what to expect. For example, entering kindergarten is different from the first day of preschool, because this may be the first time a child is in a school that also has older classes. First grade brings new levels of independence, such as being allowed to walk to the restroom alone. And as kids get older, homework and social pressures increase. Then there are the odd little worries that you may not even realize your child has. When I was young, I used to lie awake every September fretting that I wouldn't recognize a single person in my class, even though I went to a small elementary school where everyone knew everyone.
To take some of the mystery and nervousness away, here are some insider clues about what really happens once the first bell rings and the classrooms fill with excited new students.
Old and New Friends Meet
Despite their jitters, elementary-age students will quickly get down to the business of socializing on that first day. Your child might be excited to be in the same class as a good friend, or strike up a conversation with someone they don't know well. Unfortunately, depending on who's in your child's room, an old rivalry or a mean group might also start up. Be sure to talk to your child about issues such as bullying and cliques.
Not Much Teaching Gets Done
The teachers need to ease back into the routine, too, so they don't start off with a full day of lessons. Rather, they might give an overview of what will be covered during the year, and possibly give a short lecture and an easy homework assignment to get the class back into the rhythm of school.
Class Rules Are Established
"One of the first things they recommend for teachers is to have the students help write the class rules, even though we know what we want those rules to be," says a teacher friend of mine (and with 30 years of experience, she knows what works!). "I'll say, 'How do you think we're going to be able to let everyone have a chance to say something? How should we treat each other?' Then they'll say, 'Raise our hands' or 'We should be nice.' " This gives children a sense of ownership over the rules.
Students Get Organized
Your child's teacher will already have the room set up with assigned seats and cubbies or hooks for each student, and name tags to help everyone find their own individual spots. A good portion of the day will also be devoted to sorting and labeling all those two-pocket folders, composition notebooks, and binders that filled up your shopping cart at Staples. "Getting organized helps make kids feel more comfortable," says my teacher friend. "They feel like they have a better handle on what's going on."
Students Learn School And Classroom Routines
In addition to discussing classwork, that first day will include a rundown of the daily schedule. Until about third grade, most early-elementary-school children will have their core classes in their homeroom, leaving only to go to the cafeteria, gym, or playground. Unless there's a bathroom connected to the classroom, kindergartners will typically go to the restroom as a group at specific times of day, while older students can go individually.
Supplies Get Collected And Organized
Many school supply lists these days include a request for disinfectant wipes, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and other cleaners. On the first day of school, teachers collect all these bags of necessities and store them in a closet or on top of a cabinet, to be used for all the water spills, paint drips, and germy fingers that occur over the course of the year. Some schools also ask for extra stationery supplies like pencils and composition notebooks; these are kept on hand in case a student comes to class unprepared. It's an impressive pile on that first day, but it dwindles down faster than you might imagine.
Everyone Is Happy When It's Over
Your child will (hopefully) be bubbling over with reports of friends, teachers, and the new classroom. You'll be glad that the year is off to a good start (though you'll be overwhelmed by all the emergency cards and permission slips your child brings home for you to fill out). And the teachers will be optimistic... and exhausted!